How Do Hybrid Cars Work?

Buying a hybrid makes sense on a lot of levels. There’s the financial benefit of buying less fuel. There’s the reduced environmental impact. And of course, hybrids have major snob appeal. But how does all of that weigh against the increased cost of buying one? Let’s find out…

What is a Hybrid?

A traditional hybrid vehicle, like the 2012 Toyota Prius, uses a proprietary blend of electricity and dino-juice to propel you down the road. When you set off to the organic grocery store, an electric motor turns the drive wheels until a set speed is reached, or the charge from the battery pack is depleted. At this point, the gasoline engine comes to life, spinning both the drive wheels and a generator to charge the batteries.
When you slow down, the electric motor reverses, acting as a generator to charge the batteries. This is known as regenerative braking. Once you’ve come to a complete stop, the gasoline motor shuts off, but all of your accessories will continue to operate off of the batteries. Then, when you release the brake pedal (or touch the gas pedal), the gasoline engine will start itself automatically. As you accelerate back up to speed, the electric motor will work in tandem with the gas motor, providing additional torque which reduces fuel consumption from the gas engine during acceleration.

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A ‘mild hybrid’, like the 2013 Chevy Malibu Eco, uses a similar setup, but on a smaller scale. A small electric motor/generator assists the gasoline engine during acceleration and passing maneuvers. When you hit the brakes, the gas motor shuts off and the electric motor acts as a generator to charge a small battery pack, which in turn, supplies power to car’s accessories while the gas engine is shut off. As a result, a mild hybrid vehicle is able to achieve 10-15% better fuel economy than its dino-fired equivalent.

What is a Plug-in Hybrid?

Cars like the 2012 Chevy Volt & 2012 Fisker Karma are considered a ‘plug-in hybrid’. This means that the gasoline motor never powers the wheels directly. Instead, the gas engine spins a generator, which provides power for the electric motor and charges the batteries. When you go home at night, you can plug the car into a specially installed 240v plug to get 10-30 miles of purely electric motion. Once that charge is depleted, the gasoline engine comes to life, spinning at a set RPM to power the electric motor.

Just like a traditional hybrid, a plug in hybrid uses regenerative braking to charge the batteries when you brake. Cars like the 2012 Chevrolet Volt use significantly less gas since the dino-fueled motor only powers a generator. However, you will have to pay for the extra electricity used to charge the batteries. The environmental downside is, many power plants burn coal to generate electricity. If this is a concern, you can install a solar panel to provide the juice for your car. But that can be extremely expensive.

Pros & Cons

Hybrids have many advantages, but they come at a price. On average, a hybrid will cost 20-30% more than the equivalent gas powered vehicle, even with tax incentives for hybrid vehicles. And that extra cost will often take years to recoup. Plus, those battery packs, and the associated electronics will be ungodly expensive to fix/replace once the warranty expires.

On the upside, if you drive in an urban environment, where the electric motor can do most of the work, a hybrid can save you a ton of gas money. And your carbon footprint will be significantly lower too. So it really boils down to a question of economics vs. environmental consciousness.